When Jan Woerner took over the director general’s chair at the European Space Agency (ESA) in late 2015, he quickly took some flack for talking about a “Moon village”. The term perhaps unfortunately called up images of cafes and a church, and at the time Woerner even said he had had to field questions about who might be the lord mayor.
But Woerner, who is nothing if not careful with words, also stressed that “village” was chosen very specifically to suggest a place where people come together with ideas, “a single place but with multiple uses and multiple users”. He was looking beyond the International Space Station - at that time coming to the end of its planned service life, with partner nations still discussing an extension - and his notion of a permanent human presence on the Moon was to be a focal point for any spacefaring nation, or perhaps private venture, to participate in large or small ways in the next great international collaborative project.
The idea never translated into missions, hardware or budgets and NASA, at least publicly, barely acknowledged a key ally’s vision. At that time, ESA’s US counterpart ritually batted away talk of the Moon as a distraction from the Barack Obama White House’s instruction to aim for Mars in the 2030s. None of the big budget ESA members embraced the Moon.
Five years later, however, the Moon is on everybody’s space radar following President Donald Trump’s decision to turn NASA’s attention to returning US boots to the Moon. Woerner is too diplomatic to suggest he feels vindicated, but in an online FIA Connect conference session titled “Why Mars: the out-of-this-world benefits of space exploration”, he readily admitted to being “happy” that the USA is talking about a “city on the Moon”, and that even Elon Musk has spoken of having a “Moon base Alpha”.
As Woerner observes: “The vision of the Moon village is gone. It’s reality now.” Indeed, he adds, NASA’s conceptual architecture of a “Gateway” space station in cis-lunar space - as a jumping-off point for the surface and to host international research teams - is exactly the Moon village concept.
If remarks by other participants in the FIA webinar are any indication, there is palpable enthusiasm for missions to the Moon. Andrew Stanniland, chief executive of Thales Alenia Space UK, notes that the Apollo missions 50 years ago left “lots of unfinished business” on the Moon, where there remains a strong argument for technology development. And, he adds, going to and operating on the Moon is “hard”, and “some of industry has forgotten that, some never learned”.
Will Whitehorn, the former president of Virgin Galactic who now heads British trade association UKspace, agrees that the Moon is “hard”, and contends that as a private, public, international venture it is a “glorious opportunity to learn what needs to be done to go to Mars and beyond”.
UK Space Agency head Graham Turnock stresses that work on the Moon is needed to learn how to operate in deep space, for extended stays away from Earth. For example, he underscores the need to learn how to protect people from radiation, and to “crack water” into the hydrogen - and oxygen - that will be needed for any sustainable life-support system.
Woerner adds that the Moon remains scientifically very interesting; there is water and minerals, and an observatory on the far side could provide unparalleled views of the Universe. However, he is clear that he is not against going back to the Moon: “I am strongly against it… because we should not copy what was done 50 years ago, in a race in space. This time, we should go there together, on an international and also a commercial and public basis.
“Therefore I always say, let’s not go back to the Moon, as the Americans are saying. Let’s go forward to the Moon.”